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Opinion: Netanyahu builds on Obama's weakness

Obama's hesitation on Israeli settlements could put the US in danger.

Palestinian laborers work at a construction site in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Maale Adumim near Jerusalem Sept. 15, 2009. U.S. envoy George Mitchell and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ended more than two hours of talks on Tuesday without any sign of a deal on a settlement freeze crucial to restarting Middle East peace talks. (Ammar Awad/Reuters)

BOSTON — Last spring I wrote that U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were eyeball-to-eyeball and we would soon see who blinked first. The confrontation was over Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. Now, at summer’s end, it is becoming clear that Obama is beginning to blink.

In the spring Obama drew a distinct and unambiguous line in the sand. There was to be a total cessation of settlement activity: no internal expansion, nothing — a complete ban. Obama realized two important facts. One, that freezing the ever-expanding settlements that march over the hills of the West Bank and crowd Arab Jerusalem was the sine qua non of a two-state solution. 

He saw that Jewish settlements were eating up what was left of Palestinian aspirations, and that without a freeze no peace between Arab and Jew would ever take place. 

Secondly, Obama saw that he would need to move fast and right away in the beginning of his presidency when his power was at its zenith. Soon he would be subjected to the thousand cuts of office, and soon enough mid-term elections would elbow their way into White House calculations. Leaving an Israel-Palestine peace to a few weeks before he left office, as President Clinton did, would be a formula for failure. 

Benjamin Netanyahu, on the other hand, saw that Obama was a threat to his long-standing position that Israel should not give up the occupied territories, and that Palestinian aspirations would have to adjust to remaining under occupation indefinitely. Oh, conditions could be made better for them. But the attitude of the Israeli right — embodied by Netanyahu's foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman — has been that the Palestinians have to accept that they are a defeated people and get used to it.  Netanyahu is a master of prevarication, and has faced American pressure before. I was in Israel when the Oslo accords were announced 13 years ago, and, in an interview, Netanyahu was adamant that territorial compromise with the Palestinians was not the answer. 

He has remained true to his core beliefs ever since. Oh, Netanyahu will attend conferences designed to get the peace process going. He is not against a process that will keep the temperature of international opinion down, but at the end of the day he is not for territorial compromise. He will agree that there needs to be a Palestinian state, but then make every condition possible to insure that it never happens. Thus Netanyahu will give way on the unimportant details in order to protect his core belief that the occupation must continue.